1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. James Grahame

Francis Jeffrey, in Review of The Sabbath; Edinburgh Review 5 (1805) 441.



He never longs to read the sadd'ning tale
Of endless wars; and seldom does he hear
The tale of woe; and ere it reaches him,
Rumour, so loud when new, had died away
Into a whisper, on the memory borne
Of casual traveller: — As on the deep,
Far from the sight of land, when all around
Is waveless calm, the sudden tremulous swell,
That gently heaves the ship, tells, as it rolls,
Of earthquakes dread, and cities overthrown. p. 57. 58.

There are many other passages in the poem which bear marks of genius; but the greater part of it is written in a heavy and inelegant manner. The diction throughout is tainted with vulgarity, and there is no selection of words, images, or sentiments, to conciliate the favour of the fastidious reader. The author has evidently some talents for poetical compositions, and is never absolutely absurd, tedious, or silly; but he has no delicacy of taste or imagination; he does not seem to feel the force of the sanction against poetical mediocrity, and his ear appears to have no perception of the finer harmony of versification. If he be a young man, we think there are considerable hopes of him: but if this be the production of maturer talents, we cannot in our conscience exhort him to continue to the service of the muses.

This volume, however, at all events, has nothing but its poetical merits to stand upon. It contains a good deal of doctrine and argumentation, indeed, both in the text and in the notes; but nothing that is not either very trite or very shallow and extravagant. The author talks very big about the inhumanity and injustice of imprisonment for debt, and about the cruel monopolies by which the Highland shepherds are driven from their mountains. He dogmatises in the same presumptuous style on the character of Bonaparte, and on the most adviseable plan for recruiting the British army, and seems as perfectly persuaded of his own infallibility upon all these subjects, as his readers, we apprehend, must be of his insufficiency. In a poem with such a title, it was certainly natural to expect some consistency in the ecclesiastical tenets of the author; but we have been completely baffled in our attempts to discover to what persuasion he belongs. He seems in many passages to be desperately enamoured of the old Covenanters, Cameronians and Independents, and gives some obscure hints of his intention to immortalize the names of their chief pastors in another poem; but by and by we find him talking with great enthusiasm of the funeral service of the church of England, and of the lofty pealing of the organ, both of which would have been regarded as antichristian abominations, either by the old Covenanters or by the modern Presbyterians of Scotland. To the principal poem are subjoined four small ones, describing a Sabbath walk in each of the four seasons of the year. They contain merely some description of the rural scenery appropriate to those season, and seem to have no necessary connexion with the Sabbath. They are by no means without merit however, and give us rather a favourable impression of the author's talent for descriptive poetry: the versification is smoother than in the long poem, and the pictures are sketched with greater truth and conciseness. The whole publication indeed, though not entitled to stand in the first rank of poetical excellence, is respectably executed, and may be considered as very creditable, either to a beginner, or to one who does not look upon poetry as his primary vocation.